Structures of Consciousness: Part I: Gebser and EEG states

One way of delineating different states of consciousness, and experiences of time, comes from measuring the electrical activity of the brain via electroencephalogram (EEG). 20th century research has revealed five signature brain wave states associated with different subjective states of consciousness, ranging from the timelessness of deep sleep and babyhood to the temporal density of focused thought.

The longest and slowest of these electrical patterns, called delta waves, occur predominantly in babies and during deep sleep for adults, corresponding to an experience of timelessness. Delta waves’ frequency ranges from 0-4 beats per second or Hertz (Hz). Theta waves (4-7 Hz) occur in young children and in drowsy or meditating adults, where time is nonlinear and meaning is synchronistic. Alpha waves (8-12 Hz) indicate an awake, relaxed state, produced when one closes their eyes. Beta waves (12-25 Hz) correspond to alertness, activity and thinking. And Gamma waves (over 25 Hz) are implicated in specific cognitive and motor functions. The 40 Hz signature, in particular, seems to play a role in unifying consciousness across the brain through synchronizing neural firing.

Similarly, philosopher Jean Gebser (1986) suggests that evolving human consciousness includes five distinct structures of consciousness: the archaic, magic, mythic, mental, and integral. The undifferentiated archaic is akin to timelessness of deep sleep. From within archaic consciousness one perceives no difference between self and other. In the next structure of magical thinking, timelessness takes on movement and flux, though one’s inner and outer life still seem directly connected. Next, mythical thinking uses story to bring coherence to consciousness within a cyclical conception of time that relates the concrete time of the mundane realm to timeless patterns of the abstract, divine realm. Our currently dominant mental structure of consciousness then births the notion of the independent self, of spatialized perspective, and relies on logic and linear temporality to understand the world. The mental structure of consciousness currently dominates the western world, though the burgeoning integral structure of consciousness hints at an emerging transparency between these structures.

Gebser Temporality EEG
Archaic Non-differentiated Delta, 0-4 Hz deep sleep, babies
Magical synchronistic, acausal Theta, 4-7 Hz sleep transition, young children
Mythic cyclic Alpha, 7-12 Hz awake resting, eyes closed
Mental linear, causal Beta, 12-25 Hz alertness, activity, thinking
Integral transparent Gamma, 25+ Hz unifying consciousness

Gebser purports his theory as an evolution of consciousness across millennia. The lens of EEG also reveals that people experience each of Gebser’s structures of consciousness throughout their lifetimes and within their daily lives. They grow from the archaic structure in babyhood, to the magical thinking of early childhood, the mythic thinking of middle childhood, the mental thinking of adolescence, and perhaps into the beginnings of integral self-awareness in adulthood. People also move through all five structures in a 24-hour cycle, from deep sleep, dreaming, awake resting, active thinking, and self-awareness.

Archaic Consciousness and Delta Waves

Initially, consciousness, in its archaic structure, participates in life without a perception of causality, existing in a timeless, spaceless, zero-dimensional, primordial consciousness. This first structure is somewhat akin to a womb state or deep sleep, in that self and other, space, and time are non-differentiated. There is no difference, no motion, no change, only oneness.

The archaic structure of consciousness corresponds to the longest, slowest brainwaves. These delta waves occur at frequencies between one and four beats per second, or Hertz (Hz), comparable to the frequency of a normal heartbeat at about one beat per second. Snap your fingers at one beat per second. Imagine your thoughts slowing to that pace and see what it feels like to settle into that rhythm.

As babies, people’s brain waves are predominantly delta waves. As one ages, higher frequencies gradually layer within this foundational frequency adding complexity and nuance to the wave pattern as one adds complexity and nuance to one’s thinking. People return to delta wave dominance on a daily basis, throughout their lives, returning again and again to the healing rejuvenation of deep sleep.

The fact that delta wave frequencies overlap with the frequency of heartbeats, about one beat per second, suggests that this brainwave state has a unique connection with the body beyond the brain. The lack of distinction in an archaic state of consciousness not only synchronizes the brain with the rest of the body but also dissolves any sense of distinction between oneself and the surrounding land and other beings, past and future. These states are where we access the deep memory of the land, ancestors, and descendants, held non-locally in the collective unconscious. Of course these memories are infinite so there is no way to bring them back in their entirety. Thus the dream state serves as a go-between for waking consciousness and the deeper memories in which we are embedded.

The very fact that we can use words to describe the archaic structure illustrates that our verbal conception of this structure occurs from outside of it. Any bits of writing in this work that are logical or scientific, as distinct from the creatively storied bits, arise from within the mental structure of consciousness. Thus the description of each structure of consciousness is a retrospective view of that structure, flavored by the perspective of the currently dominant, mental structure of consciousness.

The archaic is completely undifferentiated and thus, both pre-verbal and even pre-thought. It is akin to the pure experience of inanimate objects. From within this realm of pure experience, differentiation emerges as a dream. Experience begins to discover hints of movement, awareness, and preference, and becomes populated with magical beings and occurrences.

Magical Consciousness and Theta Waves

Just as deep sleep is often flanked by dreams, babies grow into young children, delta waves transition to theta waves, and Geber’s archaic consciousness yields magical consciousness. The experience emerges within emptiness as an undulating undifferentiated whole, a one-dimensional, dreamlike, and synchronistic hall of mirrors. Inner and outer realities, self and other are not separate, but rather reflections of one another. As one moves through this magical structure of consciousness, either in a dream state, as a child, an ancient human, or through the certain aspects of indigenous realities, it is purely experiential. Few layers of abstract, logical or verbal understanding interfere with the purity of the experience. One’s sense of self is diffuse and causality is synchronistic rather than linear.

The magical structure of consciousness seems to correspond to theta brainwave patterns, which dominate during early childhood, or in drowsy, dreaming, or meditating adults. Perhaps while falling asleep you have experienced thinking someone was calling your name, or that you are overhearing a conversation, or an entirely formed, complex character spontaneously appearing in your mind. When falling asleep, EEG brain wave patterns transition from relaxed, alert alpha waves to drowsy theta waves in what is known as the hypnogogic stage of sleep. During this stage, one often experiences auditory and visual hallucinations. The vivid dreams of REM sleep and that occur in the last delicious morsels of sleep upon awaking are also characterized by theta waves marking the transition between delta and alpha.

Or perhaps you can recall having an imaginary friend, or a very vivid imagination that rivaled reality as a child. As children grow from babies into children, their dominant brainwaves shift from the long slow delta waves of babies to slightly shorter faster theta waves. These are the same theta waves that occur during hypnogogic stages of sleep. One might postulate that young children, by virtue of theta wave dominance, experience life in a hypnogogic manner at times, hence: a blurred boundary between imagination and reality, a non-distinct sense of identity co-extensive with primary caregivers, and a nonlocal sense of time that allows them to “remember” things from the future or from before they were born, etc.

Part of the signature of magical consciousness is a more diffuse notion of identity or sense of self. Consider how a character in a dream may appear as one person from your life, but in the dream you “know” they are actually someone else, or perhaps they shift from one person to another within the dream. Or perhaps you have experienced observing a scene from a disembodied perspective, or of having a body that is different than your own. These all illustrate the fluidity of identity within magical consciousness. With this fluidity of identity the boundaries between inner and outer become quite shifty.

The other main characteristic of magical consciousness is synchronistic causality. To understand synchronistic causality, think of how causality works in dreams. It might seem normal for internally generated thoughts to manifest in external reality in a dream state. Just thinking about flying, makes it happen. Newton’s laws do not govern this realm. A slight shift in thought or attention can produce drastic shifts in how the reality of a dream plays out. Simply thinking about a person in a dream state can make them appear, and you unsure if their appearance caused your thought or visa versa. Magical consciousness also occasionally irrupts into adult, waking conscious through synchronistic experiences like my fox finding, precognitive dreams, or a gut feeling that something is wrong with someone you love.

While magical consciousness describes a pure, first hand, subjective experience, humans tend to quickly layer in interpretations of meaning, explanations of causality, and assessments of the truth-value of the experience. The ideas of causality and identity, meaning and truth, are artifacts of mythical and mental structures of consciousness trying to make sense of the magical structure of consciousness. Only in retrospect, from beyond the pure experience of magical consciousness, do we add layers of understanding or articulation. Think of how your waking mind attempts to make sense of your dreams, trying to formulate words, a story line, and discern a message from a shifty, vivid sensory and emotional experience.

Mythical Consciousness and Alpha Waves

Flanking the hypnogogic and dreaming states are alpha wave states, of waking relaxation produced when one’s eyes close, as in meditation, prayer, or laying down to sleep. Simply closing one’s eyes removes a significant amount of external stimuli, focusing one’s attention on their inner life, allowing for reflection, contemplation, and the mind’s free roam. Taking a moment’s pause from the immediacy of experience whether in waking or dreaming life, the question naturally arise, “What does it mean?”

As with alpha wave states, the main thrust of mythical consciousness is developing an awareness of one’s inner life or soul. From within the magical structure, consciousness begins to imagine, creating a sense of memory, a sense of a time other than this one, a distinction between the real and the imaginal, that had not existed in the unitive magical structure on consciousness. Initially this separation began as distinction between tribe and other as opposed to self and other. One’s primary identify first forged as a member of a group, a tribe, a community, a family, holding common myths and sense of place, only later emerges as an autonomous self, perhaps through the physical separation of travel and encounters with otherness.

Imagination recognizes and seeks meaning in repeating cycles initiating a notion of cyclic temporality, and distinction between the concrete experience and abstract pattern, between mortal and immortal. The mythical structure of consciousness tries to determine the meaning of experience, to discern a message or lesson, to interpret a moral from the lived story. Thus myths are born, describing how the eternal and the mundane relate to one another. These mythic stories become the larger stories that individual human lives both play out within and co-create through reenactment. The mythic stories of interactions between God and mortals marks the intermingling between the timeless, unified realms of the magical and temporal, individuated realms of the mental.

The Meaning of the Magical

Looking at how various cultures interpret the meaning of dream states can offer insight into how mythical consciousness views magical consciousness. For many cultures, the dream world is just as important and valid as the waking world, though the kind of wisdom it offers may differ. For example, as an initiation to hunt with the Esalen of present day Big Sur California, a young man had to first be able to lay his hand on a wild deer. This accomplishment was equally valid if it occurred in the dream world.[1]

From another perspective, Mayan shaman Martine Prechtel offers,

Although the landscape of dreams may seem different than the landscape of the awake world, it is actually the balanced opposite, reversed version, where our souls live out our bodies’ lives reenacted as if in a complex kind of mirror. Like the two opposing wings of a butterfly, the dream world is one wing and the awake world is the other wing. The butterfly must have both wings connected at the Heart in order to fly and function.

Neither wing—dreams or waking—contains all of life. Real life occurs as a result of the interaction of the two. The life is the butterfly’s heart, and both dreaming and awake working life are necessary to keep the heart alive. Our lives, like the butterfly’s heart, are kept aloft by two opposing, mirroring, twin-like wings.[2]

Thus, mythical consciousness finds meaning through interactions with magical consciousness. The experiences of magical consciousness make more sense to mythical, moral-seeking consciousness that flanks it, than to the more distant mental structure. If left to the mental structure, the dialog with the magical is often less fruitful. Mythical consciousness learns to find morals or messages in fairytales and dreams, whereas unintegrated mental consciousness often dismisses myth and parable as not “true,” or simply childish, and therefore meaningless. Atheism is the epitome of the unintegrated mental consciousness, trapped in a causal, meaningless cosmos. This is where religious fundamentalists revolt against science, as the disenchantment of the cosmos. Science is most powerful when it serves meaning. It weakens its own power by disregarding it. Myth makes meaning by opening the door from the mental back to the enchantment of the magical.

Continued in: Structures of Consciousness: Part II: Finding Gold and The Domestication of the Mental 

This is an excerpt from my forth coming book “The Texture of Time.”

[1] Bianchetta, Daniel. (2007) “Esalen Indians” presentation at Esalen, Big Sur, CA.

[2] Prechtel, Martine. (1999) Secrets of the Talking Jaguar: Memoirs from the Living Heart of a Mayan Village. p 169-170. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam. New York, NY.

Gebser, Jean. 1986. Trans: Noel Barstad and Algis Mickunas. The ever-present origin. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

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